Vegetarianism, Minimal Impact Living & Buddhist Ethics

The issue of minimal impact living has been spinning my mind for years and still interests me.  An answer to the question of whether or not eating meat is a violation of Buddhist ethics is not easily arrived at, since clearly there are differences between the various Buddhist schools on what is and isn’t acceptable with regard to this and other important issues of moral conduct.  In this post I explain where my Buddhist practice has led me to currently stand…

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In addition to the five precepts or training rules that lay Buddhists undertake to uphold, the Buddha is said to have recommended five subjects for daily recollection, and to me they are most relevant to the question of whether or not to abstain from eating meat –

Jarā-dhammomhi jaraṃ anatīto.
(I am subject to aging.  Aging is unavoidable.)
Byādhi-dhammomhi byādhiṃ anatīto.
(I am subject to illness.  Illness is unavoidable.)
Maraṇa-dhammomhi maraṇaṃ anatīto.
(I am subject to death. Death is unavoidable.)
Sabbehi me piyehi manāpehi nānā-bhāvo vinā-bhāvo.
(All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will change and vanish.)
Kammassakomhi kamma-dāyādo kamma-yoni kamma-bandhu kamma-paṭisaraṇo.
(I am the owner of my kamma, heir to my kamma, born of my kamma, related through my kamma, and live dependent on my kamma.)
Yaṃ kammaṃ karissāmi kalyāṇaṃ vā pāpakaṃ vā tassa dāyādo bhavissāmi.
(Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.) [1]

Being guided by Tharavada teachings, I’m mindful that what is said to make an intentional act (kamma) ethical or unethical is the impact it’ll have on my state of mind rather than any consequences it may have for other beings. [2]

Three Wise Monkeys (Image source – www.ivoryandart.com)

Three Wise Monkeys
(image source – www.ivoryandart.com)

So if my intention is to kill out of anger or greed, for example, this action is unethical because my mental continuum will experience the ripening of appropriate negative ‘fruits’ or vipaka whenever the conditions become right for it. (Whatever aversion arises in the mind of the ‘victim’ is their own kamma bearing fruit; the ripening conditions include a deluded ‘self’ or ‘personality’ that is rejecting the reality of the present moment.)

But if my intention is to donate generously out of compassion, on the other hand, this action is ethical because my mental continuum will experience the ripening of appropriate positive ‘fruits’ or vipaka whenever the conditions become right for it. (Whatever delight arises in the mind of the recipient is their own kamma bearing fruit; the ripening conditions include a deluded ‘self’ or ‘personality’ that is grasping the reality of the present moment.)

According to scripture, when Devadatta asked the Buddha to make the rule that Bhikkhus should abstain from flesh he refused, saying: “And the eating of flesh that is pure in three respects, that is to say, that the eater has not seen, heard, or suspected that it has been killed (specially for bhikkhus) is allowable.” [3] My take away from this is, if monastics are allowed to use their judgement in this regard then laypersons or householders most certainly are.

So, with regard to daily practice, I refrain from buying meat or asking someone else to buy it for me because that would be a volitional act arising from desire and a direct incitement of others (butchers, farmers, et al) to profit from wrong livelihood.   But if someone cooks me a meat dish that I never requested (or secretly hoped for!) then I’ll eat it. I’ll also cook and eat any meat I happen to find in the fridge if there’s nothing else to fill an empty stomach, but only if I know for a fact that whoever purchased it did so with the intention of feeding all household members and not just themselves or a select few. And if during a meal out with friends, say, I’m tempted to go ahead and break my self-imposed rule of not buying meat… well, there are more harmful examples of ill-conduct as Bhikkhu Kantipalo makes clear –

“It has always been understood by Buddhist lay people that if one undertakes [the] Eight Precepts [on Uposatha days] then great efforts should be made not to break any of them. The Five Precepts represent a general measure for ordinary life and in practice people have a flexible attitude towards minor infringements of some of them. But the Eight Precepts are a more serious commitment and should not be undertaken lightly. If one does take them on, then one should feel reasonably certain, whatever one’s interior and exterior circumstances, that none of the precepts will be broken.” [4]

As I understand it, then, the most important thing is not to be swayed by a craving for the taste of meat or plant products, or by their alleged ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ dietary properties. Because while the body obviously requires appropriate nutrition it doesn’t require our attachment to the pleasures of eating and drinking or our attachment to its size, shape or condition (remember the body according to Buddha is not ‘I’, ‘me’ or ‘mine’ – it’s an impersonal process subject to ageing, sickness and dissolution!). And the best way to avoid suffering is to avoid unnecessary kamma or volitional acts that lead to ‘fruition’ here and now or in the future.

Before the Buddha became enlightened it is said that he observed a ploughman tilling the soil, the plough uncovered an earthworm and it was subsequently devoured by a passing bird. Siddhartha realised that this suffering would not have arisen if the ploughman had not been preparing the soil for planting food crops. [5]

The world is samsara [6] and there are always going to be ‘problems’. Just as I cannot distance myself from the problems of the meat industry, neither can I distance myself from the problems of crop production.  Deliberate use of poisons, traps and shotguns to protect growing crops (and potential profits) is a fact. Many food crops are grown in an intensive, industrial manner and some of the practices include: monocropping, intensive application of commercial fertilizers, heavy use of pesticides, reliance on genetically engineered (GE) seeds, intensive irrigation and heavily mechanized farming methods. [7] I’m not convinced that going vegetarian or vegan would have a noticeable effect on the health of the planet therefore.

Cabbage & Catterpillars (Image source - www.harperaspreywildliferescue.co.uk)

Cabbage & Catterpillars
(image source – www.harperaspreywildliferescue.co.uk)

Just being born is cause not only for my own dissatisfaction but for countless other living beings who suffer my presence.  Bacteria are destroyed without me giving them a second thought as I routinely wash my hands with soap and pour cleaning agents down the toilet, for example.  Insects are trodden underfoot and ingested occasionally as I go about my daily business.  Regardless of how mindful or not I happen to be, everything I do has unintended consequences that ripple throughout the universe rather like the ripples on a still pond that has been disturbed by the wind or by someone casting a pebble into it. But my saying all of this isn’t to excuse negligence through ignorance, however.

Ethical choices are of course possible, but whilst we can empathise with the alleged ‘victims’ of food production, for example, we live in a web of causal dependency and we cannot realistically determine the extent and true cost of our own wilful actions – let alone anyone else’s!  Blanket rules are unworkable, not appropriate in every situation, and may be unethical if wrongly applied.  Moreover, if the serial killer Angulimala [8] could enlighten himself I’m sure there’s hope for the butcher and his customers even if they haven’t yet given up hankering after meat!

Animal Slaughter (Image Source – awionline.org)

Animal Slaughter
(image source – awionline.org)

Our ultimate reason for not hastily judging other people who make different ethical/moral choices is that it leads to our own mental detriment. I have already explained how (according to the Four Noble Truths Sutta) a volitional action is ‘right’ when it has a positive mental effect on the doer and ‘wrong’ if it has a negative mental effect on the doer. Thus, intentional killing is unethical primarily because it stresses the perpetrator; it requires suppression of empathy for other living beings and makes killing them that much easier the next time. However, the negative ‘fruits’ arising from the kamma of mindfully eating dead meat that has not been killed specially for the eater are noticeably less severe than the negative ‘fruits’ arising from eating dead meat that the eater has deliberately killed or sought after. And greedy plant eating is worse kamma than mindful meat eating. This isn’t just some armchair speculation – it’s something that can be tested through practice and its one that I know to be true through personal experience.

 

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References

[1] ‘Upajjhatthana Sutta: Subjects for Contemplation’, translated from the Pali by
Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Access to Insight).
<http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an05/an05.057.than.html>

[2] Yuttadhammo Bhikkhu has an intersting take on this issue – see ‘Ask A Monk: Mark Zuckerberg, Vegetarianism and Killing’ (YouTube), 04:28/31:20 mins. <Ask A Monk: Mark Zuckerberg, Vegetarianism and Killing>

[3] ‘The Buddhist Monk’s Discipline’, by Bhikkhu Khantipalo (Access to Insight).
<http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/khantipalo/wheel130.html#food>

[4] ‘Lay Buddhist Practice’, by Bhikkhu Khantipalo (Access to Insight).
<http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/khantipalo/wheel206.html#atthasila>

[5] ‘Life of Buddha’  (BBC), 11:30/49:57 mins.  <The Life Of The Buddha (BBC Documentary)>

[6] According to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “Samsara literally means ‘wandering-on.’ Many people think of it as the Buddhist name for the place where we currently live — the place we leave when we go to nibbana. But in the early Buddhist texts, it’s the answer, not to the question, ‘Where are we?’ but to the question, ‘What are we doing?’ Instead of a place, it’s a process: the tendency to keep creating worlds and then moving into them. As one world falls apart, you create another one and go there. At the same time, you bump into other people who are creating their own worlds, too.”
‘Samsara’ by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Access to Insight).<http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/samsara.html>

[7] ‘Industrial Crop Production’ (Grace Communications Foundation).
<http://www.sustainabletable.org/804/industrial-crop-production>

[8] ‘Angulimala Sutta: About Angulimala’, translated from the Pali byThanissaro Bhikkhu (Access to Insight).
<http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.086.than.html>



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